How far would you go for your brother? if you have one, obviously. If you don’t, what about a sister – or anyone who remains part of your life no matter how they behave. Just a friend won’t do, as if a friend does something beyond the pale you tend to part company. But a brother – if he does something untoward would you help him out? Should you help him out?
The name The Motel Life is a misnomer as the film really examines the relationship between two brothers Frank and Jerry Lee Flannagan, played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, Dorff plays the ne’er-do-well Jerry Lee, Hirsch the man who choses to drop his life to care for his brother. They’ve been orphans since their youth, their only inheritance a gold-plated Winchester rifle. With no parents or extended family they are closer than most siblings, and now they share a room in the Sierra Nevada, Western USA whilst working at a fish-packing factory. Both are creative. Frank tells stories, Jerry Lee is an artist who draws graphic novel type characters.
Told with generous flashbacks we see something of their life and learn about their childhood. But the interest of the filmmakers is in the bond between the brothers. Debut-directed by two brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky, maybe there is more going on beneath the surface of the film than is immediately apparent. Animated segments represent the brothers’ use of creativity to escape the banalities of their lives.
We don’t get to know the brothers before they are dealing with the aftermath of a bad decision. Hirsch doesn’t bring any anguish to Frank’s decision to help his brother. He has no qualms about what is the right thing to do. Other characters are subsidiary to these two men, although Kris Kristofferson shows up with a memorable cameo as a used car dealer.
Frank and Jerry Lee do not go on a typical movie journey, ending up knowing more than they did about life and themselves. Rather from the start they are there for each other. Or at least Frank is there for Jerry Lee. Whether the relationship is entirely reciprocal is not tested.
The plot could have become a thriller, but ultimately the directors do not push that element as far as they could have. It has thriller-esque moments, but really the film is a character study of blue collar life. As such it may not appear to be relevant to the UK viewer, but the relationship between brothers is universal. The story might sound slight, but thanks to the two strong central performances the film does not outstay its welcome.